Afghanistan Exposes the West’s Crisis as it did the Soviets’

The Soviet Empire was undone by three things – firstly, overstretching itself, especially through the acquisition of a series of Global South satrapies from Nicaragua through Ethiopia to Vietnam in the 1970s and 1980s; secondly, misrepresenting realities to itself so as to fit Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy; thirdly, because its leaders no longer believed in that political religion even as they presided over a system that permitted no alternative.

Mohammad Najibullah’s government hung on in Kabul for three years after Soviet troops were withdrawn from Afghanistan in 1989; Ashraf Ghani’s kleptostate didn’t even survive until America’s withdrawal date. US and other Western experts were more wrong about Afghan society than the famously self-deluding late Soviet Union; in terms of plain logistics, the US executed a shockingly less competent withdrawal than a USSR on the brink of collapse; and in the shape of Ghani and before him Karzai, it backed rulers so monumentally corrupt that they seem to have been less palatable to devout Afghan Muslims than actual godless Communists.

Soviet APCs depart Afghanistan as part of the first phase of troop withdrawal in 1986.
Soviet APCs depart Afghanistan as part of the first phase of troop withdrawal in 1986. © RIA Novosti archive/ Yuriy Somov. Used under CC-BY-SA 3.0.

In the dying days of 1979, Yuri Andropov, then head of the KGB, fought an initially successful internal battle against Soviet intervention in the country after the Communist coup, convinced that invading Afghanistan would end up in failure; it was feuding between Afghan Communist factions once in power that dragged the USSR in, and fear of losing face in the propaganda game of the late Cold War that kept it there for a while. But it only took the Soviets seven years to realise they weren’t actually being welcomed as defenders of material progress and women’s rights against religious obscurantism, and they were gone in nine. America took twenty.

Yet all the while, the people directing the war in DC knew it was going badly and simply lied, as the Washington Post exposed in 2019 when it got access to the US government’s own report on its failures in Afghanistan. The Bush, Obama, and Trump administrations all lied, knowingly, not just to the public but much of the time to themselves; they couldn’t have sustained this war for 20 years otherwise. Countless experts colluded in the lies, spending time and money to create analyses to fit a consciously deceitful official narrative, nodding along because dissenting voices find their careers limited while nodding dogs get to bill four-figure daily rates.

Governments lying to themselves with the encouragement of experts well-paid to silence truth-tellers is a pattern of behaviour familiar from the story of toxic mortgage bonds and the 2008 financial crisis; something similar will probably turn out to surround the pandemic’s origins and how influential Western medics helped Beijing cover them up. This is not just an American problem. Lying is just as embedded, for example, in the UK, where the political class and punditocracy spent yesterday arguing about the ways in which Britain could have saved Kabul from the Taliban when the same people know British combat troops left Afghanistan in 2014.

Truth is now entirely subject to political ideology in the West, but being liberal democracies rather than a single-ideology state, various nexuses of deceit sell different sets of lies to their own groups of followers. The progressive/left take is that jihadism only exists because of colonialism and White supremacy with British Labour MP Richard Burgon even demanding reparations be paid to the Taliban. The soi disant sensible centre-left-to-mainstream-right were the actual architects of the Afghan disaster, with neocons and hawkish liberals like Blair inventing for themselves an Islamic world crying out to be bombed from the air so they could be free. And, of course, the post-Trump GOP is so far down the rabbit-hole of QAnon-lizardmen-paedo-pizza conspiracy that it doesn’t worry that its lies sound like they come from the secure wing of the local asylum.

In the middle of this falsehood fest that would have embarrassed Erich Honecker, the progressive bourgeoisie gets shocked and outraged when plebs decide if they’re going to be sold a pack of lies anyway, they might as well buy the Trump/Brexit/Salvini brand that at least gives a short-term hit of feeling good about themselves.

Why should the normies feel bad about rejecting the official ideology of liberal universalism when the people running Western countries, including liberals, progressives, and leftists, don’t believe it themselves? Biden’s people have negotiated deals with countries like Uganda to take in refugees from Kabul and are sending planeloads full of their Afghan helpers there because they don’t actually want these people to live in the US. Not exactly “give us your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”, is it? Nor is it only the Americans. Dutch diplomats abandoned their posts without even telling their Afghan staff; Swedish diplomats just walked off the job without saying anything while their Afghan colleagues worked on, and then refused to answer phone calls. I wonder what proportion of people involved in this superior, bigoted, Islamophobic, racist, maltreatment of their own colleagues spent last summer slathering their social media accounts in BLM hashtags and getting into competitive wokeness competitions with their workmates? It won’t be low.

As for overreach: this was effectively a war of forced conversion. Its aim was to turn Afghans, the majority of whom live deep in the countryside of what has been for a thousand years one of the most intensely and conservatively Islamic societies on Earth, into Canadians with colourful clothing. A sort of vanity colonialism against an almost impossible target. Such folly was only conceivable in the fevered atmosphere of late 2001, where post-Kosovo utopianism about Western interventions met America’s understandable anger and deep insecurity after 9/11. But democracy, a Western legal system, and individual liberty aren’t just bits of cultural tech that can be imposed from without; they are themselves the product of centuries of historical development. Not all of which was very pleasant for disadvantaged groups in the West.

While Western societies retain an economic vitality and a capacity to challenge rulers that would have been unimaginable in the Dresden or Leningrad of the 1980s, their élites suffer from the same failings that killed an admittedly weaker late Communism. And remember the experts never saw that one coming either.

The brutal realpolitik is that Afghanistan probably doesn’t matter very much geopolitically, about as much as South Sudan, where many more people die – where one in seven women dies giving birth, even in 2021 – and nobody much notices. So recent events in Afghanistan may not of themselves matter much to the fate of the world, but they say damning things about Western civilisation, which is in much deeper peril than people allow themselves to think and may be in the sort of pre-collapse state that Soviet civilisation, the rebellious daughter it hated for being far too similar, found itself in by the mid-1980s. The incompetent exit from Kabul shows a failing and self-deluding USA leading a failing and self-deluding West. Underneath the visibly warping floorboards, the joists may be quite rotten.

This isn’t Saigon, it’s vastly worse.

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